The break-away regions of Moldova and the South Caucasus have been hitting the news this week. Speculation is increasing about the use of the on-going conflicts in Transnistria and Nagorno-Karabakh as pawns in the Russian-EU geopolitical chess game. Tensions, never far beneath the surface, are threatening to escalate in both regions–while at the same time, new efforts to make progress towards a resolution are also following suit. Let’s evaluate recent events…
Last month Russia announced that it would be delivering new armaments, including helicopters to Moldovan “peacekeeping” troops in the Transnistrian break-away region. Russia claimed at the time that the armament plan was reached with the cooperation of the Moldovan government, an assertion which Moldova’s Defense Minister Vitalie Marinuta and Foreign Affairs Minister Natalia Gherman refuted.
Since then, Russia has hinted that Moldova’s choice to pursue a path of EU integration might push Russia into fanning the flames of contention between Moldova and the Russia-leaning break-away region of Transnistria.
Ukraine has worked with Moldova to bar the transit of Russian military equipment to eastern Moldova (Transnistria) via Ukraine. Under international law, Russia may not bring military equipment to Moldova’s territory without Chisinau’s consent. Ukraine, in an effort to recognize Moldova’s territorial integrity, has said that it cannot allow such transit through Ukraine’s territory, as long as Chisinau does not authorise the entry of such cargo.
Both Moldova and Ukraine have been in hot water with Russia, causing Moscow to enforce import bans on both countries, in what many have called a pressure-tactic to deter both countries from signing the EU Association Agreement in November.
There have been no armed clashes in Transnistria since 1992. Because of this the urgency to find a resolution has dwindled. As Philip Remler of Carnegie Europe, explains:
“Each side wants peace—on its own terms. As in other protracted conflicts, although the sides may hope that the conflict will be resolved, after twenty years without a settlement they no longer expect it to happen anytime soon and have adapted to that expectation. As a consequence, both sides view negotiations not as a process leading to a solution but as an opportunity for short-term political gains over their opponent.”
In an article by Dan Peleschuk in Global Post, last week, Transnistria was referred to as “Russia’s Beachhead In Europe”, saying:
“Russia now counts Transnistria as its de-facto outpost on Europe’s doorstep — and its 500,000 or so residents, around two-thirds of whom are ethnic Russians and Ukrainians, as its own…Many Transnistrians count on formally integrating with Russia someday. Government propaganda encourages such proclivities. Towering billboards glorify the “country” and its “capital,” as if to reassure citizens their state actually exists.”
“In fact, Transnistria remains in diplomatic limbo, the subject of a two-decade-long effort by Western officials to resolve one of the former Soviet Union’s “frozen” conflicts.Not even Russia recognizes the self-proclaimed republic as independent. But keeping the region politically and economically reliant on Moscow, experts say, helps stymie Moldova’s European integration and sends the message that the impoverished post-Soviet country should remain in Russia’s orbit.”
Becoming absorbed into Russia may have its downsides, however. As Nicolae Ţibrigan of Presseurop writes:
“In Chişinău there is talk of resolving the conflict with the breakaway province within the framework of Moldova’s integration process into the EU. On the west bank of the Dniester, this seems to be an ideal solution – a trajectory that will make Chişinău more attractive to the east bank. What does this attraction entail? Moldova could bring Transnistria two economic benefits: access to European funds and access to western markets.”
But then, this was not enough to entice Armenia…
Hussein Zulfugari, commander of the Iranian Border Police spoke on Tuesday, saying:
“You are aware of Iran’s position on the issue. Iran stands against weapons of mass destruction, terrorism, drug smuggling and war. If one country occ,upies the territory of another country, our policy is directed against this.”
Does Iran recognise Nagorno-Karabakh as Azerbaijan’s territory?Zulfugari continued:
“There is no relation between Iranian border guards and Azerbaijan’s occupied territories. We do not have any relation with the opposite side. This position is based on our policy in the region. We hope that the problem will soon be solved.”
Meanwhile, analysts are weighing in on Armenia’s decision to join Russia’s customs union over the EU Association Agreement, and to what extent the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict has influenced this decision.
Dr Laurence Broers, the Caucasus Projects Manager of UK based Conciliation Resources spoke in an interview recently describing what he believes may be some key factors underpinning Armenia’s decision:
“This is one of those Caucasus stories that manages to be both sensational (I didn’t believe this would happen) and yet at the same time unsurprising (I should have known better). From where we stand today, it looks like a serious, long-term strategic error, although we don’t know of course what pressure President Sargsyan was put under. Armenia’s quest to become less of a Russian client-state has been reversed, maybe for the long term; the country could join a southern tier of Russian clients including Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan. There will be a lot of soul-searching in Armenia and it’s a huge blow for the state building process. Although some will argue that it makes Karabakh more secure from Azerbaijani attack, I don’t think such an attack was by any means likely in the near future. It’s also a blow for the longer-term democratization process that is the only real hope for a transformation of the conflict.”
It is a sentiment echoed in part by this week’s CEPS report from Michael Emerson and Hrant Kostanyan, who opined:
“There are other recent developments that may shed light on Russia’s behaviour towards Armenia. On August 13th President Putin made his first visit to Baku in many years, which resulted in contracts for the supply of Russian military hardware to Azerbaijan, amounting to $4 billion. Azerbaijan itself is greatly expanding its military spending on the basis of its oiland gas revenues and one frequently discerns in the country’s political discourse a strong determination to get the settlement it wants over Nagorno-Karabakh, preferably by negotiation, but if necessary, by force. Meanwhile Russia has a military base in Armenia. Thus Russia is conspicuously arming Armenia’s enemy while at the same time pressuring it to join the customs union. The precise terms of the Sargsyan-Putin conversation on this matter are not publicly known but left to the imagination.”
“Many Europeans still don’t know
where or what the Caucasus is,
except, sadly, when it bursts onto TV screens
with a new violent outrage or war”
However, Broers takes a closer look at the Nagorno-Karabakh conflict in general, and identifies some potential problems in the way the wider-world perceives both the issue, and the Caucasus in general”:
“Many Europeans still don’t know where or what the Caucasus is, except, sadly, when it bursts onto TV screens with a new violent outrage or war….Another misperception is that the South Caucasus never actually arrives anywhere – it is always a region of peoples ‘facing big choices’, ‘in transition’, ‘on the way’ to somewhere or at another ‘crossroads’. I think we need to accept the South Caucasus as a real place as it currently exists, where decisions have been taken, choices have been made. This is the way to creating a greater sense of responsibility and ownership of politics.”
And of the perception of protracted conflicts in the region, Broers explains:
“One very clear misperception, however, regards ‘frozen conflicts’, or the language of ‘neither war nor peace’ or even ‘post-Soviet conflicts’. These static and obsolete categories encourage an unjustified sense of complacency about the region’s conflicts. This is especially true when we talk about the Karabakh conflict, which I believe needs to be talked about as an ongoing and dynamic militarized rivalry rather than a frozen conflict.”
The OSCE Minsk Group, specifically charged with moderating the conflict and finding a basis for resolution, has a newly appointed US Co-Chair, James Warlick. Warlick was received on Friday of last week by the President of the Nagorno-Karabakh Republic Bako Sahakyan. President Sahakyan reportedly congratulated co-chair Warlick on assuming a new post and wished him success. While Warlick’s new to the post, many are hoping that this new appointment will bring a fresh impetus to the conflict-resolution effort. Broers, however, takes the Minsk Group’s current actions with a grain of salt:
“Unfortunately, the Minsk Group does not engage in public diplomacy except for occasional statements (usually expressing frustration), so what is there to report on? People just don’t hear about the Karabakh conflict, especially next to what is happening in the Middle East.”
“…For all the talk about the South Caucasus as a geopolitically important region, it is actually not very important geopolitically. Yes, there are important pipelines and flyover routes – but the region only becomes important in the light of some other policy priority, not for itself. For as long as developments in the Karabakh conflict don’t threaten these other priorities, it does not get noticed. I believe that all the conflict parties in the South Caucasus like to play up the geopolitical importance of the region, but the reality is closer to secondary or even tertiary importance – so long as war doesn’t break out.”
— Karabakh MFA (@mfankr) September 13, 2013
Meanwhile in the region…
— Molly Corso (@corsotbilisi) September 18, 2013